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The Future of Accounting: How a New Generation Can Tackle the World’s Biggest Challenges

Dec. 20, 2021, 9:45 AM

When I was studying in school, I was excited for the career ahead of me. I joined the Big Four because it offered me many opportunities to build a career. I had no idea I would stay for 35 years—but I stayed because I was able to be part of many interesting trends in the business world. I was able to learn about capital markets and derivatives, M&A, technology, and now the purpose of a corporation in relation to all stakeholders.

As the CEO and Global Chairman of EY, I’m still proud to be a part of that work. I know today’s students also want those opportunities. Luckily for our profession, I think accounting students graduating now have an even more exciting career ahead of them. In all my years in the profession, I’ve never seen a more important, inspiring moment to be an accountant.

The reason is simple: Right now, we’re facing multiple generation-defining crises. Between the impending climate catastrophe, a global pandemic, and worsening social and economic inequality, stakeholders everywhere are calling on the business community to step up and do its part. After all, the private sector touches almost every facet of society, which means we have a unique ability to innovate and mobilize for a common goal.

But to make meaningful advances, we need to be able to turn our ambitions into concrete plans, measure our progress, and report on what’s working. This is a place where accountants have always been crucial partners. Now, they have an opportunity to lead an important transformation—both in their own field, and across the entire business community.

Accountants Move the World Forward

Ever since Luca Pacioli invented modern accounting in the 1400s, the profession has helped the world move forward. Investors and creditors depend on financial statements to assess their potential risk and return—and accountants are the ones who lend credibility to the information they need to make sound decisions.

But now, our role is evolving. Not long ago, the Financial Times ran a story about “warrior accountants” who are helping their companies pursue ambitious new agendas around sustainability. The author, Gillian Tett, wrote that, “The new front for activism revolves around… the world of accountancy and finance.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. At EY, we work with businesses in every industry in every part of the world. We’ve helped them establish bold goals to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. In almost every case, accountants offer an important perspective on how to shape those plans and turn those ambitions into reality.

It’s also true that today’s investors want more than financial data. They want to understand companies’ ESG investments—and to do so, they need reporting they can trust. Any business can talk about big ideas. But if they want to turn those ideas into concrete actions and prove their value to stakeholders, they need a way to measure and communicate their progress.

The Future of Accounting

This is why accountants have become vital to transforming the future of business. By helping businesses set real goals and share their milestones, they can inspire confidence among investors and strengthen trust among stakeholders.

But as reporting evolves, the skills required to do the job need to evolve, too. That means, looking ahead, accountants will need to be proficient in areas like counting carbon, assessing physical and transition risks related to climate change, and measuring progress on broad ESG metrics. When it comes to sustainability information, they will need to help companies improve their processes and internal controls as well as their data collection and analysis, so that its quality and reliability is of a comparable standard to the information used in financial reporting. To meet the new demands of the field, organizations should invest in upskilling for established professionals.

As accountants become key players in the ESG space, universities are starting to rethink their approach to education, too. Not long ago, it would have been rare to find a mention of sustainability in accounting curriculum. But, already, we’re seeing the model start to shift.

For example, the accounting department at Northwestern University offers coursework in sustainability reporting and analysis. Harvard Business School offers a class on how climate change can affect a company’s bottom line. The University of Groningen Business School has an Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) Assurance course. Furthermore, the University of Sussex Business School has launched the Sustainable Finance and Accounting MSc. Meanwhile, “Green MBA” programs are becoming more popular, with offerings at many of the nation’s top institutions. Whether it is an undergraduate degree focused on accounting, a masters in accounting, or an MBA—all these programs will need to integrate sustainability, non-financial metrics, and a new way of understanding value into their programs.

Universities are able to accelerate this transformation by adding more classes like this to their curriculums. They can also go a step further by offering joint degrees or electives that combine accounting with areas like sustainability studies. That way, the next generation of accountants will enter the workforce equipped to handle these sustainability challenges that businesses face today.

A New Generation of Accountants

But evolving accounting education is only part of the solution. Real change will be driven by the students themselves—and that shift is already underway.

I’ve heard from a number of business school deans that they’re seeing a renewed interest in accounting as a course of study—and that more students are pairing accounting with studies in sustainability or related topics. There’s also a growing movement of early career professionals who understand that accounting can make a meaningful impact—and are pushing their organizations to take important steps forward.

We need to keep up that momentum. A new generation of accountants can bring the discipline, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills needed to shape the future of business. In the process, they can help companies become more sustainable and more impactful for society.

I’ve always been proud to be a CPA. It’s a job where you become a custodian of financial health and integrity for the companies you serve. Now, today’s “warrior accountants” can deepen their impact on their businesses and their communities. They can connect the work they do every day to a larger purpose—and build a fairer, stronger, and more resilient future for everyone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Carmine Di Sibio is the Global Chairman and CEO of EY, one of the largest professional services organizations in the world with more than 300,000 people serving clients in 150 countries worldwide. Appointed in 2019, Di Sibio led the development of NextWave: EY’s global strategy affirming its purpose of Building a better working world and ambition to create long-term value for all stakeholders. Di Sibio co-chairs the EY Global Diversity and Inclusiveness Steering Committee, which works to maximize the power of different opinions, perspectives, and cultural references within the organization. He is leading on EY’s commitment to be net-zero in 2025, having become carbon neutral in 2020 and carbon negative in October 2021. In a profession first, Di Sibio also appointed EY’s first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer to drive internal and external efforts. He is a member of the board of Focusing Capital on the Long Term (FCLT), which encourages businesses to drive inclusive growth. He’s Co-Chair of the New York Jobs CEO Council, which fosters collaboration between business, education, and community leaders in preparing diverse New York communities for the future of work. He also serves on the boards of the Foundation for Empowering Citizens with Autism and Family Promise and is a member of the Board of Trustees of Colgate University and a member of the Wake Forest University Business School Board of Visitors. He has a foundation in audit and remains a practicing Certified Public Accountant. Di Sibio earned a BA in Chemistry from Colgate University and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business.

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